Zenni Optical: Swimming towards the blue ocean?

When I started AmeriCorps as a recent college graduate in 2009, I had a single pair of glasses. They were giant, semi-opaque gray aviators with a gradient rose tint on the prescription lenses. I got them because I wanted to practice seeing the world through “rose-colored glasses” to shake off the depression that had followed me around for 10 years. They were also held together by hockey tape, which worked well because of its fabric-like pliancy. The arms would take turns melting out of place, but the tape I’d gotten for free to repair them was the right price given the times and the prospect of buying a new pair out-of-pocket while under-employed straight out of college.

It’s been 10 years, so these are just from the past 5

About a month into my AmeriCorps*VISTA service program, the team leader shared out some resources for living below the poverty rate, a standard of how the volunteer stipend for the program is set. An eyeglass reference, Zenni Optical was listed, whose glasses you could order online starting at $6.95. (Warning, ordering through that link will save us both $$ on our next pair of glasses!)

Zenni Optical may not be firmly in the blue ocean, but from quick research they seem to be a leader in swimming into the blue ocean–and then being followed by others. Founded in 2003, they exist as an online store only, allowing customers to pick from hundreds of frames and customization options all at rock-bottom prices. To date, the most expensive pair I’ve “splurged” on was under $50, has blue light filter lenses, and a personalized inscription in the right inside arm.

While they certainly provide lots of opportunities for people to pursue fashion, they absorb all the costs by maintaining the manufacturing and distribution internally, enabling them to pass on the same great buyer value but without having to pay for the brands, and having no physical storefronts to raise overhead or liability. As of the writing of a 2018 Forbes article, they’re exploring crossing the final hurdle in user experience – improving customers’ ability to find the right size by using their device’s camera to do the sizing for you.

When combined with a push into digital ophthalmology, there will be no barrier for an individual to order low-cost, high style prescription glasses with an accurate prescription while waiting for a bus. This signals an interesting aspect about blue ocean strategy that I assume is implied – the ability to leverage or anticipate the evolution of key industry dependencies to discover where you can invite customers to embrace never before existing value. While this industry change isn’t unique to Zenni since they have a number of competitors, arguably more popular even if less profitable, their initial strategic commitment to offer the lowest cost is their saving grace. Industry changes will pummel competitors who have intentionally relied on or replicated services traditionally offered by optometrists and ophthalmologists. In some senses, in seeking to acquire services to further differentiate themselves from a low waste competitor like Zenni, they’ve adopted not just waste but also decay (Kestenbaum).

While I don’t know anything about their leadership, it would not feel surprising to observe that a company consistently looking to swim towards a blue ocean rather than stay in the red might benefit from echoing those practices internally to promote rapid innovation, improvement, and alignment with a blue ocean mentality.

Kestenbaum, R. (2018, April 24). Buying glasses online is becoming the norm — but growth will explode once eye exams go digital. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/richardkestenbaum/2018/04/24/online-eyeglasses-has-explosive-growth-ahead-of-it/#27d8d55b27c8

Kim, W. C., & Mauborgne, R. (2014, May). Blue ocean leadership. Harvard Business Review, 3-12.

Kim, W. C., & Mauborgne, R. (2015). Creating blue oceans. In W. C. Kim, & R. Mauborgne (Eds.), Blue ocean strategy: How to create uncontested market space and make the competition irrelevant (pp. 2-23). Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press.